Forming Institutions – Marriage

Biblical Text: Mark 10:2-16

There are lots of biblical texts about human sexuality. There are also lots of texts about freedom. This text has more to say about both and their intersection than any of the rest. This is Jesus talking about how God made it, and this is Jesus giving the gospel key to understand the rest. This text, just as it was in its day, is a nuclear explosion against all the settled pieties and selfish claims of our cultural moment. This is my attempt to preach it. I’m content with this.

Prophetic Truth

Biblical Text: Isaiah 29:9-19

The prophets were the institution in Israel that were supposed to be dedicated to the truth. What happens when they became corrupted? How could they be restored when the truth is lost? I think this has more than a little to instruct us today. This sermon is an attempt to work through the text and keep its truth. It’s a tough one.

A medicinal reminder

I’m usually pretty rough on institutions. If I am being truthful it is because I’m a trained cynic. The best training and advice I ever got as a young financier was to understand the compensation structure. Once you understood the compensation of everyone key in the room, you knew what position they were going to take. Crafting good presentations was all about making sure all the key people appeared to get a slice. The net effect of that is that institutions always act in their own best interest. Even if their mission or the collective best interest will be smothered and crushed. Here is a great example of the UAW turning down a contract that would have kept an ‘Old GM’ plant open because the current workers preferred to keep their slots at ‘new GM’. The chance at getting a UAW GM job was worth more than a current job and an increase in the number of jobs in the local area.

One of the tough questions I asked the confirmands last night was does following the 8th commandment (which according to Luther means putting the best construction on everything) mean being an idiot? Is my cynical take on institutions, which I have rarely seen violated, a breaking of the 8th commandment? (My answer is probably, but sin boldly.)

As much as the church usually confirms my cynical view of institutions, it still remains about the only place where I get surprised. And it is usually because of individuals who refuse to sin boldly against the 8th commandment. And while not being idiots, they choose to act like them and work within the institution. And they usually bear the price – the cross – of such a choice.

Jason Byassee at Duke Divinity recalls the good of institutions in the hellhole of the Sudan. It is a medicinal reminder of the good of functioning institutions.

I guess here is the crux of my problem. Acting like my cynical view rarely endangers the mission of most institutions. But the mission of the church is directly damaged. There is a sense that your could say the mission of the church is to be the anti-institution, the institution that acts not according to the rules of this world but according to the kingdom of God. The church here and now is about putting your neighbor at the same level, about being your brother’s keeper. When it works, when it is competent, it can give a glimpse of stitching the world back together as Mr. Byassee puts it. It gives a foretaste of the Kingdom currently hidden among the cynicism.

A Virtue of a Necessity

Most organizations or institutions do not make changes until they just stop functioning. Somewhere in a vague past the complexity and size that an institution had built up actually helped. Then it stops. But the institution can’t even think about operating in another way. That is the way we’ve always done things – even though it isn’t. And a big part of it is that the institution made promises, promises they can’t keep anymore. And instead of admitting that and going into triage mode – finding what can be done – they keep the external dead husk of a structure while killing everything in it with 10% cut after 10% cut. And that can go on forever – until it just stops or until someone with the leadership and guts comes along to change it.

Parochially, the Eastern District and the LCMS has been in that situation for years. Taking a look at the budget is sad tale of woe of zombie programs and structure that just won’t die. All the while strangling things that might work. A tale of hospice instead of triage. A tale of care-taking instead of healing.

This NY times article and this bishop’s letter on the same thing – the NYC catholic schools – would seem to signal a change in that institution. It seems that Archbishop Timothy Dolan wants to be a leader. (The hospice image is his.) He’s picked a couple of interesting fights. First he’s picked a fight with “American Individualism”.

I fear as well an attitude that the support of our Catholic schools is only the duty of the parents who have children there. In this view, a parish without a school has no obligation at all to support other Catholic schools, and a parish blessed with a school might offer a “subsidy” to the school, but shifts the major burden of upkeep to the “school families,” who then are looked upon as “demanding drains” on the rest of the parish.

Such a view, of course, is, simply put, “non-Catholic.” As our tradition, Church teaching, canon law and cherished Catholic practice remind us, support of Catholic schools is a duty of the entire Church, even if you may not have a child now in one, or belong to a parish without one.

There are concentric rings of responsibility. Luther put the catechism to the head of the household by which he meant the father. But he also meant the heads of larger houses including the princes as the heads of the household of state when he wrote in 1524 a treatise “To the Councilmen of all Cities in Germany that they Establish and Maintain Christian Schools.” Luther would agree with the Archbishop.

The second fight he picks is over the role Bishops and Clergy. Stop the whining, stop the “good enough for church work”, stop the narcissism and pious sad face – and do your real job. Building hope. And it starts with competence in the job placed before you.

Finally, I fear a subtle buy-in into what I call the hospice mentality. Some bishops, priests, pastoral leaders, and Catholic faithful now sigh and say, “Well, we sure love our schools, and they have served us well, but, sadly, their day is over, and twilight is here. So, the best we can do is make their passing comfortable, and hold their hand while they slowly pass into grateful memory.”

Malarkey! We need to move from hospice to hope.

And we can’t do business as usual. To stand back and watch our schools struggle and scrape will only result in an “academic Darwinism”—where only the few fit survive—and a slow shrinking and gradual disappearance.

So, what do we do? We do what those before us have done. We renew passion, face reality and boldly plan for the future. We recover our dare and quit whining.

Pathways to Excellence calls for ongoing improvement internally, with realistic attention to quality teachers and principals, improvement of math and science scores, reassertion of Catholic identity and aggressive marketing.

Nobody wants to dedicate a life (especially a celibate live) to living in a hospice. In 2009 protestant seminaries had 20,835 M.Div students while catholic had 2,170 – an order of magnitude difference. It is nice to see someone with the leadership mantle appearing to use it.